Artful storytelling starts with character.
Character is the linchpin of every element of story, the reason readers come to the writing and stay interested. The most successful characters can become larger-than-life and even outgrow the stories they spring from. Characterization is – or should be – inextricably bound to all other story elements, the vehicle through which the reader rides into your story. Skillfully depicted characters can be the driving force of plot, theme, mood, setting and story. When you know your characters well and breathe life into them, they can – and should – help drive your story.
A way with words is valuable for a writer. Being adept at creating memorable characters is invaluable.
I never started from ideas but always from character.
Once you know the story you want to tell, it’s time to decide who’s going to tell it for you: your character.
While the character in your book may be yourself, your creation based on yourself or other people you have known or even famous or imagined people you have never known – any combination of factors – these characters come to life based on how well you know them.
Whatever the basis of your character, they need personality, character traits, unique dialogue and, ideally, some hard-to-reach goal, ideal or transformation.
You can not confront your character’s belief system or confound her goals until you are intimately familiar with them.
Take your character on a journey and you take the reader on a journey with him/her.
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created nothing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Essential questions to ask and answer about your characters:
Vivid characters are three-dimensional, they have depth and movement that should come alive in the story if you wish to captivate the reader. Give your characters agency, show them making decisions, doing things. Explore their motivations, what drives their desires and decisions? Why do they want these things?
Give them action, it can be big or little but it must be three-dimensional, rich in depth, texture and, ideally, movement toward or away from something. Give them agency, show them making decisions, doing things. Explore both their outwardly-expressed and internal motivations. Show how much and why they want these things. Explore why they are compelled to keep at it. In short, know what makes them tick, even if you do not reveal it all to the reader.
Give them depth by giving them connections, whether these are with places, things, other characters, their own past or their dreamed of future.
Character-building writing exercise: Sit in a public place and closely watch other people. Observe their behavior, appearance and body language, their actions as well as their speech. Then write down the descriptive character adjectives that come to mind. Are they polite, belligerent, rude, angry, pensive, loving, aggressive, meek, funny, somber? Then write down the specific details and/or actions that led you to these conclusions.
When you know your characters and your story, you have the necessary essential ingredients to put your characters into some kind of conflict. The conflict can be large or small, the goal or desire of minimal or maximal magnitude, but there must be something that your characters care deeply about in order for the reader to feel deeply about them. Great characters are conflicted characters and the building blocks of these conflicts can be life-shattering or even trivial as long as they are there.
In life, most people want to avoid conflict, but most fiction revolves around friction, whether internal or external, these conflicts and conundrums need to be there to drive your character’s journey.
Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.
To take your characters to the next level, you need to know not only their external conflict, goals and desires but also explore their inner conflict. Life should not be any easier for your characters than it is for real people. Characters should be as much like real people as possible, they may not always know what they want, exactly why they want it or just how they should go about getting it, but there must be a story with an insight as to how they try, whether they succeed or fail. As with people, characters may not just want one thing. They may want many different things or may even want things that stand in direct opposition, but they must want something. They may wish to be loved but not to settle down, may wish to be wealthy but not wish to work excessively or compromise the other aspects of life that this goal may demand.
Great stories are usually carried by conflicted characters, characters who give the reader an interest in what they have at stake to win or lose, to attempt to achieve or fail. With well-crafted three-dimensional characters these stakes may be large or small but they must be there to drive the story and captivate the reader.
When you put your characters in a story with external conflict and also imbue them with internal conflict you add depth to the drama. Compelling characters are those faced with difficult dilemmas and tough choices. People relate to such challenges because life offers them up continually – as should the writer do when crafting characters.
Good characters make choices and decisions. They may be good or bad choices, right or wrong decisions, but they need agency. It is always better for characters to be proactive than just reactive. Things may happen to your character - but make sure that your character also makes things happen.
When your character is faced with a dilemma that demands a decision, whether it be big or small, they need to act on it. Great characters, whether they achieve their goals or not, are generally the drivers of their destiny and this is most deftly done through showing their decision-making and their acting upon these decisions. And dilemmas or decisions present the opportunity to portray your characters acting on their instincts or desires, and this drives the story forward and establishes both story momentum and reader interest.
Just as the major and minor tribulations of life are not always so easily navigated, neither should your character's journey be clearly signposted. They should struggle, whether internally or externally, to achieve the outcome they desire or overcome the one they don’t.
When you build up the dilemmas and decisions and then have your character act, you build up the momentum of your writing. This is the basic principle of both scene and story structure - all of which lead to well told stories.
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